Why seniors don't want to retire

John Stewart

John Stewart retired not once, but twice. And yet again, the 64-year-old is delving back into the working world.

Stewart retired from the Austin Police Department in 1995, only to return to law enforcement several years later as the police chief in Port Lavaca. There, he retired in August.

"I kinda kicked back at home, did some fishing and hunting, and had a good time," he said. "I did that for a few months, and it didn't stick."

Now Stewart is getting his commercial driver's license from Victoria College. After 45 years in law enforcement, he decided he wants to drive tanker trucks for the oil field.

Call it a second phase, an encore, a reinvention. Just don't call it retirement. More people are entering their mid-60s - stuck, perhaps, with dismayingly skimpy savings accounts, but blessed with sound health and many years ahead of them - and deciding that retirement doesn't top their agenda.

"We figure 20 or 30 years is too much to play tennis or golf or sit around outside," said Linda Miller, 60, who three years ago made a transition of her own, from corporate communications manager in the Twin Cities to career coach with 2Young2Retire, an organization that helps people choosing later-life work.

Statistics reflect the trend. Between 1993 and 2009, workforce participation by men ages 62 to 74 grew by 39 percent, according to the Urban Institute. Participation by women in that age group grew by 60 percent.

"Ninety percent of workers age 60 to 64, or 5.4 million men and women, say they enjoy going to work," the institute reported. "The share increases to 97 percent of workers 70 and older, or 3 million people."

Of workers surveyed in a 2012 study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, 37 percent plan to postpone retirement until sometime after they turn 65 - triple the proportion two decades ago.

Finances are a major concern, especially since the recession slashed retirement accounts and home values. Sixty percent of workers in the EBRI study reported nest eggs of less than $25,000, excluding their homes and any pensions. And only a third of all those surveyed have pensions. They worry about medical and long-term care bills even more than they do basic expenses.

For Stewart, the decision to pick up a new trade after retirement came down to an escape from boredom.

"I've been trapped behind the desk for a long time. It will give me the opportunity to get out," he said.

Plus, he still needs some extra cash to fuel his growing assortment of "toys," as Stewart calls them - like a boat, travel trailer, guitars, and maybe even motorcycles in the future.

"All the research we've done shows that, even when the money issue is put aside, people don't want to do nothing," said Tammy Erickson, author of "Retire Retirement: Career Strategies for the Boomer Generation."

Especially not for years on end. When pensions were introduced in the late 19th century, average life expectancy was 47 and most people worked until they died. Now, the average 65-year-old can expect to live another 18 to 20 years. Take a few trips, play a little golf, do some gardening, clean the garage - and then what?

"When I talk to people about what they want to do when they retire, most of them have very short-term ideas," Erickson said. "They want to take a cruise or something like that. They don't ask themselves, what are you going to do in 20 years ... 30 years?"

So some people simply stay at their jobs as the birthdays tick past. Others start their own businesses. Or grab the opportunity to do socially relevant work they set aside during their high-earning years. Or retrain, often in community colleges like VC, for jobs in growing industries such as health care, education, nonprofit work, technology and services for the elderly.

But will employers be open to hiring them? Age need not hinder performance - age-related shortcomings are often outweighed by reliability, commitment and accumulated knowledge. But with 8.3 percent unemployment, Erickson acknowledged that "it's still pretty tough" for older job seekers. Workers older than 62 are less likely to be laid off, but have a harder time finding new jobs. When, or if, they do, it's often for lower pay.

But in a satisfying twist of fate and demographics, experts predict that within the next decade workplaces may become more welcoming to the gray-haired. That's because there simply won't be enough younger workers to replace the estimated 77 million boomers. Industries may even go out of their way - offering lengthy leaves and other enticements - to lure older workers into jobs for which, conveniently enough, they will be quite well suited.

Already, millions of jobs in certain industries are going unfilled, said Rick Miners, coauthor, with his wife Jeri Sedlar, of "Don't Retire, Rewire!"

"We've got to get over ageism," Miners said. "We always talk about saving our natural resources ... we need to do something to save our human resources."

Stewart, who still lives in Port Lavaca, is just going with the flow. He takes his driving test on Tuesday and figures he'll stick with the truck industry "Til they run me off, or I get tired of it," he said.